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Chemical Scare Brings Evacuation in San Juan

Times Staff Writer

The discovery of a potentially explosive drum of chemicals led to the evacuation of more than 100 workers from an industrial street in south San Juan Capistrano on Tuesday before the danger was removed four hours later without injuries.

The scare took place at 32961 Calle Perfecto, a building used by Nichols Institute, a medical research organization. A 50-gallon drum of waste chemicals used for developing photographs of materials under microscopes was discovered swollen at the top Tuesday about 11 a.m.

About 100 Nichols Institute employees and about 10 employees from the White Cap Wholesale Contractor Supplies building next door were evacuated, fire officials said.

Another 150 employees of the Capistrano Unified School District’s headquarters, directly across Calle Perfecto from the Nichols Institute, were warned to stay inside and keep windows closed, but they were not evacuated.

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The Fire Department team sealed off the building, blocked traffic from entering the street and finally removed a plug in the chemical barrel at 3 p.m., after four hours. The drum was then declared safe for normal removal by state-approved chemical-waste contractors used by Nichols Institute.

Albert Nichols, president of the research institute, said the drum of chemicals was found “expanding at the top. We knew there was some potential for risk, and we notified the Fire Department. We did this to make sure the people who defused it (the chemical waste) are experts.”

Nichols said the drum contained two chemicals used for developing photographs of genetic material as seen under a microscope: glacial acetic acid and methanol, a flammable, poisonous liquid.

County firefighter Jim Forrester said, “The contents of the drum consisted of 75% methanol and 25% acetic acid.”

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His team, he added, finally decided that it was safe to cover the drum with plastic bags and to remove the plug at the top of the barrel, relieving pressure inside.

At one point, the fire team considered calling the county Sheriff’s Department bomb squad to transport the drum away from the building, Forrester said.

San Juan Capistrano police herded traffic around the industrial area, near the intersection of Camino Capistrano and Avenida Aeropuerto. Calle Perfecto was closed to traffic for about four hours.

At the school headquarters at 32972 Calle Perfecto, employees watched anxiously from doors and windows as yellow-suited firefighters surrounded the evacuated Nichols Institute. Jacqueline Cerra, community relations officer for the district, said firefighters had told employees that they did not have to evacuate but should remain inside with doors and windows closed.

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Nichols and firefighters said they do not know why the drum of waste chemicals expanded and appeared on the verge of exploding.

Nichols said the two photo-developing chemicals have routinely been disposed of for years in similar drums with no problems.

The institute, which has about 600 employees in San Juan Capistrano, provides medical diagnostic tests and research for about 4,500 hospitals across the nation, he said.

“What we’ve been doing in this particular laboratory was studying chromosomes under the microscope and taking photographs of them,” Nichols said. “These (chromosomes) are genetic material that determine certain illnesses early in life. The chemicals we use for developing our photographs are similar to those you’d find in most photography laboratories.”

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